When you picture going to the theater, in your mind … what do you see?
Some people might imagine a traditional Broadway experience, with huge casts performing on an elevated stage in the front of the room, surrounded by elaborate sets, lights and costumes.
Others might picture a more Bohemian scene, with a tiny cast tackling difficult issues in a very theatrical way, in a small black room with a smaller audience and no bells and whistles.
However, for anyone lucky enough to attend Head Trick Theatre’s production of Goblin Market, they’ll be able to see something truly unique: a show that combines the full musical treatment of the former, with the intimate theatricality of the latter.
Goblin Market is an original musical written by Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon, adapted from a classic poem of the same name by Christina Rossetti. It tells the story of two sisters growing up in the 19th century. One day, while doing chores by the river, they hear the call of river goblins imploring them to buy their magical fruits. Laura (Sarah Dunn) can’t resist trying some, and afterward she can think of nothing else but getting more. So, when the goblins refuse to appear again for her, she begins to wither away. Therefore, it is up to Lizzie (Sophie Adickes) to find a way to save her sister, and the day. A lot of literal and metaphorical ink has been spilled discussing all the possible interpretations of this poem, so I won’t take any time to add to it here. Suffice it to say that the themes of “innocence” versus “experience” will not be lost on you.
Somehow, Head Trick Theatre has found a way to offer up a theatergoing experience that is unlike anything else you’re likely to see. In several ways, Goblin Market is a typical musical, with two gifted performers belting out tunes and harmonies that move the story forward, all while backed by live musicians. However, this show is also very much a small-scale, intimate experience. The two women mentioned above represent the entire cast, tasked with playing both the sisters and the goblins they encounter. The set is little more than sparse pieces of furniture covered and uncovered by sheets as needed, their costumes (designed with minimalist flare by Marissa Dufault) are, for the most part, modest white frocks meant to feature them even more starkly against the black walls and floors, and the “orchestra” (directed by Billy Petterson) is an impressive if uncommon trio of a keyboardist (Jameson Ward), violinist (Christine Warren) and cellist (Natasha Rosario).
Obviously, for a show constructed like this, its success or failure rests squarely on the shoulders of the two actors front and center throughout. Luckily, both women are more than up to the task. And make no mistake — this is a challenging show to perform. Each performer is never more than a couple of minutes away from an involved and difficult song. The spoken dialogue is (I assume) taken directly from the source poem, which adds an almost Shakespearean challenge of giving modern meaning to old-fashioned, flowery sentences. And all this must be done without even a single minute to rest and gather themselves in between.
As the sister who succumbs to the allure of the goblin fruit, Sarah Dunn has perhaps the more challenging role, switching from youthful girl to withered husk to spiteful goblin and back again, often with little more than a few seconds to prepare. But saying this should not in any way diminish Sophie Adickes’ role or performance. While Lizzie might have one less transformation to undergo, both actresses do superb work on their own and together. Their interplay is so natural that you have no trouble believing their relationship, and their voices synchronize perfectly, adding a haunting beauty to this already very disturbing story.
Director Rebecca Maxfield should be commended for her work in this production, both for the casting of her two leads and for finding a way to use small elements (a music box here, a hand-slapping game there) to big effect. Lighting designer Josef Allen also deserves a shout-out for providing subtle yet startling contrasts from the various “worlds” this story inhabits — indoor vs. outdoor, health vs. infirmity and good vs. evil.
For a theatrical experience that seems grand even as it feels intimate, be sure to take some time for Goblin Market before it slips away, never to be seen again.
Head Trick Theatre presents Goblin Market by Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon – music by Polly Pen, adapted from the poem by Christina Rossetti. Directed by Rebecca Maxfield, musical direction by Billy Petterson and choreography by Carson Pavao. Mar 29 – Apr 7. AS220 Black Box, 95 Empire St, PVD. Tickets: (* Thursday Pay-What-You-Can) Online pre-order (bit.ly/goblinmarket2019) or door. Free with Brown/RISD student ID. For more information, visit headtricktheatre.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.